Last week friends on social media shared memes mocking American attempts to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. One showed M1 Abrams battle tanks and suggested President Joe Biden wanted to send American troops to defend Ukraine’s border; below was a contrasting photo of the United States-Mexico border with a message that the White House would not secure this. While others may use rhetorical bombast filled with straw men, tu quoque, ad hominem, and other fallacies to rally their base or blast opponents, Christians engaging with foreign policy should be more honest and serious. In this case, someone can easily want the US to secure the southern border while also wanting to respond somehow to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, no one who is serious wants US troops to fight Russia in Ukraine. Kyiv has a military for this purpose, though it needs weapons and backing from the West to resist the Russian military. Instead, the question is what, if anything, America should do to help Ukrainians defend their country from a looming invasion.
Besides the suggestion that the United States must not support Ukraine until Washington does more to secure the border with Mexico (or something else on the domestic front), a more serious critique says the West must not antagonize Russia. By this logic, Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence, and conflict will occur if the West infringes upon the Kremlin’s supposed right to dominate Kyiv. Coming loudly from those who want a minimum American presence abroad, this critique effectively argues that Russia would behave better if America was nicer. Immediately after World War II, Christians made similar arguments about the Soviet Union—such as when John Bennett suggested in Christianity and Crisis that, without the USSR giving up anything in return, the US should unilaterally abandon bases in Europe that the Soviets considered threatening.[i] Nice, one-sided gestures would supposedly placate Soviet fears and prevent conflict. Yet while generosity may produce results during negotiations with trusted partners, and two adversaries can resolve disputes by offering mutual concessions, and a weak actor must sometimes retreat or relent to a bully—unilateral niceness toward aggressors too often produces more aggression. This can occur whether the aggression stems from an ideology like fascism or communism, or from a materialist impulse, such as overthrowing a regime whose example would threaten a kleptocracy. So even if the US gave Ukraine to Moscow, as if America could give a sovereign country to another, Russia’s overall behavior would likely remain unchanged.
A better critique, often coming from realists, says the United States must not bother with peripheral regions, and Europe is peripheral as East Asia becomes the priority. Based on this argument, America cannot both deter Russian aggression and, say, deter Communist China from invading Taiwan. Perhaps the US is so weak that it must abandon the western peninsula of Eurasia to focus on the continent’s eastern edge. But other options remain—such as developing stronger ties with those European countries willing to strengthen their defenses (e.g., the United Kingdom and Poland) so that the US can divert resources elsewhere.
This second critique has another problem: what happens on the western side of the Urals can still have consequences further east, often in ways policymakers do not anticipate. In one example, North Korea surprisingly improved its intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017, which put the entire mainland United States in Pyongyang’s range, though it does not have an appropriate nuclear warhead yet. Evidence indicates that the Kim regime made these sudden improvements because it received Ukrainian rocket engines through black-market purchases. These probably originated from a factory near the front lines of the war in Ukraine. The point is not that America should eliminate all such risks, but policymakers must not pretend that Europe and Asia are wholly separate regions. They are interconnected and will become more entwined as China develops its Belt and Road Initiative to connect itself with Europe through Eurasia. These improved overland connections will help Beijing rely less on sea lanes that the US Navy could threaten in a conflict.
Beijing and Moscow are also growing closer, complicating the narrative that abandoning Europe would help the US in a rivalry with China. The suggestion that the second-largest European country by landmass falling under the dominion of an emerging Beijing-Moscow axis would not affect US-China competition appears suspect. Walter Russel Mead is therefore correct when he writes, “The fantasies of withdrawing from some regions to focus on others will have to be set aside; Europe, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America all require more American and allied focus and attention, even as we continue to gear up in the Indo-Pacific.”
So beyond humanitarian and idealist motivations, America has reasons to try to deter a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. That does not mean Washington should do everything possible to defend Ukraine; there is a limit. While American troops in Europe should be on alert, they should not fight in Ukraine because it is not a NATO member. Unless the US does fight directly, any argument that suggests countering Russian aggression inherently means going to war punches at a straw man.
But rolling over and doing nothing as Russia prepares to invade Ukraine would not benefit America. While Biden has made mistakes, his administration’s attempts to use public diplomacy and publicize intelligence about Russia’s impending attack is a unique albeit risky way to avoid conflict. This tactic’s success or failure will have lessons for future geopolitical confrontations. Meanwhile, if Russia insists upon taking Ukraine, Ukrainians with arms from America and others would make the fight more difficult. If the country is painful enough to conquer, Putin might change his course.
Moreover, the US and other states are right to prepare sanctions against Russia. Even if sanctions are imperfect, trade and commerce with America is a privilege, not a right. Countries must understand the economic consequences of angering the United States. The Kremlin has worked toward protecting itself from these economic risks, but export controls can still cause damage. Kicking Russia out of the SWIFT payment system is America’s ultimate economic threat, but it’s a one-shot weapon because afterward other countries would create their own payment network, weakening future sanctions’ potency. The SWIFT threat should be on the table, but other sanctions should be implemented first so that the US has room to escalate. Sanctions may have knock-on effects for other countries like Germany, which Washington could consider because maintaining the NATO alliance is a priority. But those states cannot have ultimate veto power over American sanctions. Berlin should understand that its decision to close nuclear power plants, making it more beholden to Russian gas and Vladimir Putin, has consequences.
At the time of this writing, Russia has not invaded, but its troops are massed near Ukraine’s border, including in Belarus. Putin may decide not to invade and may want an off-ramp from the crisis. Considering how past Russian invasions of Ukraine and Georgia occurred while the world watched the Olympics, perhaps he is waiting for that distraction. In the meantime, the United States should continue to use public diplomacy so that the world does not get distracted and knows that Russia is the aggressor. But Washington must also be prepared with sanctions and other tools in case these efforts fail.
[i] Other Christians in 1946 were more foolish, such as the Episcopalian editors of The Witness, who did not want the US to have a military strong enough to deter the USSR. They also blamed Western bankers and others instead of the Communists for Soviet misbehavior, and wrongly assumed that confronting Russia inherently meant going to war. The editors thought the church should foster friendship between the USSR and the West, which could have been fine and good, but they did not consider what should happen if the Soviets rejected friendship. Thankfully, policymakers ignored these religious leaders, to the great benefit of the world.
Today some Christian groups like the National Council of Churches (NCC) are close to a similar error by ignoring the necessity of military preparedness. While they correctly prod the Biden administration to prepare sanctions, they make no mention that Ukraine must prepare for war or how the US, UK, and others have given Kyiv arms. The NCC statement says, “We implore the US government to work tirelessly toward a strong response that protects the people of the [sic] Ukraine from harm without resorting to war. We agree with the use of diplomatic tactics instead of warfare.” The statement is ambiguous whether “resorting to war” is only for the United States (which would be odd because the US is not on the verge of war) or if the NCC would agree that Ukraine has a moral obligation to prepare for war and to defend itself militarily if Russia invades. It also ignores that Ukraine is already at war in its east, where 14,000 people have died. Christians should recognize the Ukrainian state’s responsibility to defend its people militarily if necessary. After all, the sword of government is not an idle decoration—if using the sword is always evil, God would become complicit in evil because sword-wielding governments can be his “servant.”